Global Governance

International diplomacy needs an overhaul to stay relevant. Here’s why

Modern diplomats should be mandated to represent the interests of the population. Image: Vladislav Klapin/UNSPLASH

Rodrigo Tavares
Founder and President, Granito Group
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Global Governance

The United States is the country with the world’s largest diplomatic network, but it currently has 38 vacant ambassadorships positions – 23% of the total – indicating that President Trump is not holding diplomacy in high esteem. In Barack Obama’s administration the number of vacancies was also high.

In recent times, diplomacy has been slow at grabbing the opportunities unleashed by an increasingly fluid global environment.

The elephants, Persian horses and leopards used by Manuel I of Portugal in an embassy to the Holy See in 1513 are no longer part of the diplomatic toolbox, but the basic modus operandi of diplomats has not dramatically changed over the last 500 years.

To most countries, the legitimacy of diplomatic presence is still predicated upon anachronistic concepts such as distant representation, closed-door negotiations, exclusive knowledge, or professional nobility.


Modern diplomacy should, firstly, be humanized. If, historically, diplomats were personal representatives of the king or, later, of the state, they should gradually be mandated to represent the interests of the population instead.

Diplomacy should be the art of conducting national policies abroad. Healthcare, education, infrastructure or innovation policies are shaped and implemented inwardly and outwardly in a constant flux that harnesses opportunities unlocked by global competition.

Layers of century-long, crystalized practices may have given shape to the idea that foreign affairs has its own oxygen, but diplomacy should assist in job creation, the improvement of public healthcare systems, and universalization of sanitation, too.

It follows then that all ministries in a national government should go abroad. It is difficult to conceive that a single one of them – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) – should be exclusively responsible for the internationalization of a country. A constellation of public officials, most notably the senior representatives of different ministries, should also be mandated to operate globally.

Embassies are to be occupied by representatives of different ministries, not only trained diplomats. For countries such as the UK the new normal is to have some of their consulates and embassies led by people who have made their careers in different ministries.

The Ambassador in Brazil has worked for Justice, Cabinet and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, whereas the Consul General in São Paulo worked for Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. In the near future, MOFAs will mostly serve to braid different national policies conducted abroad into a single foreign policy that can be accountable and explainable. MOFAs will be more articulators than executors.

Citizen’s interests will also be represented externally by subnational governments of states, cities, and regions.

Presently, virtually all Canadian, US, German and Chinese states and provinces have in place foreign affairs apparatus to represent their interests. This is a phenomenon called ‘paradiplomacy’ and was thoroughly discussed in my recent book, “Cities and States as Global Players”, and in this article. Strong collaboration between federal and local government is fundamental to deliver efficiently.

Have you read?


Unlike in the past, diplomacy is also as much an open-door as it is a closed-door business. The global community is so hyper-connected that social media is increasingly used as a means of communication between states and with local communities. E-diplomacy is cost-effective, provides public accountability, enables agility in foreign communications, and is good branding.

But, according to a study, 79 MOFAs still didn’t have a Twitter account in 2016 and 23 didn’t have a website. Ranked by Digital Diplomacy Review, the best performing countries in this arena are the US, UK and France.

In this highly connected context, diplomacy has long lost the privilege of being the exclusive feeder of information. Media, NGOs and exhaustive country analyses by risk consultancies are much faster at filling the gaps and providing reliable, deep, and cost-effective knowledge.

But our external representatives still have a role to play. They can collect unique information, specific field intelligence designed to quench the thirst of peers at home and which cannot be gathered remotely or through third parties.

To communicate and engage more effectively, diplomatic representation should also be more diverse and encapsulate the full social fabric of a country.

National governments have, in turn, to do a much better job at collecting and treating that internal data, which may be equally produced by representatives of different ministries.

To communicate and engage more effectively, diplomatic representation should also be more diverse and encapsulate the full social fabric of a country.

Women are still poorly represented in diplomatic careers. In many languages there is not even a specific word for female ambassador (French, English), or for the ambassador’s male spouses (Portuguese, French, English, Spanish, Arabic).

Brazil, a country with 113 million people who self-identify as either mixed race or black (55% of population), has a diplomatic force with only 3% who are black. Since 2014, however, steps have been taken in the right direction by implementing an affirmative action programme through which 20% of new diplomats need to be of African descent.

Regaining relevance

But for diplomacy to fully regain its relevance as a public institution, other changes should be made.

If the new mantra of public service is efficiency and cost-reduction, then countries should fully embrace the power of technology. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds and diplomacy should brace for an avalanche of change.

Foreign affairs bodies should consider incorporating blockchain technology into passports and border controls. Blockchain is a transparent and tamper-proof ledger, which can be used to verify a person’s identity.

Machine learning can also aid foreign policy-making. A few years ago, the UK conducted a thorough study on all multilateral organizations that it is a member of to infer their capacity to deliver change. If explicitly programmed, machines would have surpassed trained humans in their ability to collect and find patterns in hundreds of years of accumulated data.

Virtual embassies

Countries should also consider setting up virtual embassies in special situations, such as the US Virtual Embassy in Iran, established in 2011, or Palestine in Hebrew, a Facebook-based embassy launched recently by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), aimed at facilitating understanding between Israel and Palestine.

The US virtual embassy in Iran allows people to get information directly from the US government about culture and policy.

An online presence can serve as a source of information about politics, the economy, or trade. But it should go beyond these two examples and provide e-services to people and facilitate remote communication channels.

A few countries are gearing up for the changes to come. Denmark appointed the world’s first tech ambassador (“tech ambassadør”) in 2017, and France’s President Emmanuel Macron announced the country’s first ambassador for digital issues (“ambassadeur pour le numérique”) – both with a mandate to build better relationships with major technology firms. The recent launch of France’s national AI Strategy is also aligned with this.

Switzerland, on the other hand, has established Swissnex – a science and technology diplomatic network that has offices in innovation hubs such as Boston, San Francisco and Bangalore. As diplomats are trained in the world in which they operate, then tech training should be part of any foreign affairs curriculum.

Joint operations

Aiming at the better use of public resources, countries should also consider the idea of operating joint embassies, engaging in resource-sharing arrangements or providing citizens of partner countries with consular assistance.

Netherlands and Switzerland share premises and costs in Oman. Some embassies have the potential to be used as podiums of soft power. National pavilions in World Expos display national features for only six months every five years, but embassies could be used as perennial open houses to experience the best countries have to offer. The Nordic Embassy’s complex in Berlin was one of the first to set that trend.


Finally, all this should be addressed while taking genuine action on underperformance. This has somehow remained a taboo in diplomatic circles, but governments need to establish clear measures to encourage professional and personal enhancement.

Diplomacy is as equally relevant today as it was in the Renaissance. For as long as distinct human communities remain attached to a territory and adopt institutional arrangements to govern their welfare, there will always be a need to translate their internal needs into external opportunities.

Modern diplomacy was created before the State and it is likely to outlive it. Just like written communication has survived the platform on which it has been carried out – from scrolls, to codex, to e-books.

Even so, diplomacy should always seek new sources of legitimacy. That is why the current generation of diplomats is about to sail off on a difficult double mission: inheriting and carrying forward a venerable, centuries-old institution, but also being the agents of change by infusing this tradition with technology, modernity and resilience.

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